Chennai: Two men plunged to death while cleaning a septic tank near Coimbatore city on Tuesday, adding to the growing number of human deaths cause by the most demeaning work in India today. Murugan and Pandidurai, the victims, were siblings and were engaged to clean the tank in Thiru Nagar housing colony.
According to reports, the colony people called Murugan, a contract worker, to clean the public drainage tank, who took his brother Pandidurai along. When Pandidurai, who was unclogging the drainage, lost consciousness after inhaling the toxic fumes and fell into the tank, Murugan tried to help him but fainted and fell into the tank, too. Reportedly, both of them were not wearing any safety gear.
In recent times, nine sanitation workers have died in Coimbatore alone, U K Sivagnanam, Joint General Secretary of the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front (TNUEF), told Newsclick, adding that “there is no awareness among the workers and the authorities, too, are doing nothing in that matter”.
Murugan is survived by his wife and two little children, while Pandidurai was newly married.
The tragedy took place a day after the Chairperson of National Commission for Manual Scavengers (NCSK-National Commission for Safai Karamcharis) and members from the associations of manual scavengers across Tamil Nadu met in Chennai, announced that a survey would be conducted to evaluate the plight of manual scavengers in the state.
The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act penalises people who employ manual scavengers. But the Act is being rampantly across India, though official data on violations and deaths is abstract.
“Nowhere in India is the 2013 Act being strictly being followed. Even in Tamil Nadu, any such accident is considered a mistake of the workers,” Samuel Raj, state secretary of TNUEF, told Newsclick.
“The Act calls for a survey to find the exact number of people working in this field. But nothing of that sort has happened yet,” he added.
As per a report published in Newsclick in July 2018, there have been 1,340 deaths related to manual scavenging in the past 10 years across the country. Out of these, 294 deaths had been reported in Tamil Nadu. The data was collected by the Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA), a national movement committed to the eradication of manual scavenging and the rehabilitation of scavengers.
Deepti Sukumar of SKA had alleged that the government has been denying the workers the benefits of National Scheme for Liberation and Rehabilitation of Scavengers (NSLRS). However, the officials claimed that no sanitary workers came forward to avail the benefits for past five years, a claim often rejected by activists.
The socio-economic background of these workers plays a huge role in these ‘unmarked’ deaths. According to a report published in Countercurrents, a majority of sanitary workers and manual scavengers in Tamil Nadu belong to the following Scheduled Castes: Adi Andhra; Arunthathiyar; Chakkiliyan; Domban; Kuravan; Madari Madiga; Pagadai; and Thoti.
The report cited that, “On the side of the workers involved, sheer poverty, limited education, lack of any alternative means of livelihood, the persistence of the nexus of caste and sanitation, which is seen as something hereditary – these are among the factors pushing the community to manual scavenging.”
The steadfast growth of urbanised set-ups and schemes, such as Swachh Bharat, are leading to the rampant growth in the number of toilets in the country. While many districts in the country claim to be open defecation free, the lives lost in cleaning the urban mess are comfortably forgotten and not even recorded. Tall pronouncements made by successive governments to rid the country of a heinous practice like manual scavenging will make no headway until these deaths are recorded, and advanced technology is adopted.